On August 14, 1872, The New York Times ran an obituary for the Mexican president Benito Juarez, who had “succumbed to the consequences of a violent attack of neurosis.”
It was one of the first times that the word neurosis appeared anywhere in the paper. First coined around a century earlier by the Scottish doctor William Cullen as “a functional derangement arising from disorders of the nervous system,” the term was a woefully imprecise one; Juarez had, in fact, died of a heart attack.
It would be a few more decades before neurosis came to be strongly associated with the field of psychology. World War I gave rise to war neurosis, now understood as post-traumatic stress disorder, while Freud’s essay Neurosis and Psychosis helped to turn it into a diagnosable condition—but even then, it remained vague, a sort of catch-all for problems of the mind.
Like our understanding of mental health, the vocabulary used to describe it is fluid, with certain terms falling in and out of favor as we discover new ways to diagnose, treat, and think about the various conditions that can arise in the human mind.
A new report from the research firm Fractl examines the ways in which these words have changed over the past 200 years. For the report, researchers looked for appearances of 21 mental-health-related terms in the Corpus of Historical American English, a collection of 115,000 texts from 1810 to the present, totaling around 400 million words. For each term, they also examined the 10 words that most often appeared nearby.